In the course of the past week, people in South Sudan, especially the residents of Juba, the capital, have been alarmed by new developments in the country regarding the spread of Covid-19 and the government’s response to it. South Sudan was the last country in the East African Community to report a case of the novel coronavirus, on April 5. But since then, the country has experienced such a rapid increase in case numbers that it is finally waking up from a sense of complacency that had seized it up to now. The government has dissolved and reconstituted its High-level Task Force on Coronavirus and confirmed the largest increase of case number in a single week since the pandemic landed in the country. It announced that its First Vice President, Riek Machar, who headed the first Task Force, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Information and most of the 15 members of the former Task Force have tested positive for the virus and are currently in isolation.
The disease has also felled prominent individuals, unquestionably driving home the fact that this disease does not discriminate on the basis of power or wealth. Officially, the total is now standing at 290 cases and counting. But many people suspect the disease has affected the country more than the government is able to ascertain with its limited resources and poor reach beyond Juba.
This has shaken the whole country into a new awareness about the dangers this disease represents. Up to this point, the country’s reaction to the pandemic has been a mixed bag of late response by the political leadership, despite early warnings by public health specialists; scepticism about the virulence of the disease, both at the level of some government officials and ordinary people and disinformation. The late descend of the disease had caused popular complacency. There was also lack of clarity in the country’s plan of action, as the fever of global confusion about the nature of this virus and the politics of response to it also caught this country.
As things stand, nearly two and a half months since South Sudan adopted emergency response measures to combat the pandemic, the country looks more confused and more uncertain about what to do next in the struggle to curb the virus. Its first line of defence, physical distancing orders, has not been sufficiently enforced, as the public has defied the disease and government response orders such that people have continued to gather in public places, especially in the markets, worship venues and social events. The government has been half-hearted about these measures anyway, as it found itself in a serious bind of whether to enforce a lockdown while unable to feed the people or to be lacklustre about it and count on the citizens’ own sense of responsibility to do the right thing. Funerals have particularly been most challenging to moderate with a view to reducing the number of people attending them, especially in the recent weeks, as the country lost very prominent people, some of them liberation heroes, whose lives the public wanted to commemorate.
The use of protective face masks has also been extremely hard to enforce, only limited to well-informed people or who have the capacity to acquire them. Even the senior government officials who have now tested positive, particularly those on the first Covid-19 task force, had publicly behaved in ways that did not adhere to the prevention guidelines they were urging the public to embrace. For example, First Vice President, on announcing his positive status, was surrounded by journalists holding microphones to his face but he did not wear any protective equipment, very likely exposing the crowd around him. It was all shocking to watch on television and has left many people wondering why the Vice President did this. The Minister of Defence, Angelina Teny, who also happens to be Vice President’s wife, had suspected she may have been exposed and requested to be tested, but went to work before the results came back, interacted with senior military officers and attended a ceremony in honour of the recently appointed Chief of Defence Forces and the handing over by the outgoing chief, all entirely against protocols of physical distancing and the requirement to wear protective gear.
Add the health system’s incapacity for widespread testing, lack of therapeutics, low morale of health personnel, the sense of nonchalance among many members of the public regarding the seriousness of this disease to the mix, and the only logical scenario for the country will be herd immunity through widespread infection. In the meantime, judging by last week’s rapid climb of case numbers, the disease is likely to have immense impact, especially in Juba and other big towns. The hope is that this sudden spike in infection rates may have finally jolted the country into a new wakefulness about the nature of this disease, which might prompt individuals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. So far, it seemed that most people were unable to relate to a disease that had killed only two people in two months and the public officials in charge of fighting it behaved contrary to their own guidelines, not leading by example.
Apart from the disease itself and its public health threats, the twin tragedy of Covid-19 is its impact on livelihoods and the national economy. Recently, the Sudd Institute, a public policy research centre based in Juba, published two policy briefs assessing the impact of the pandemic, one focusing strictly on the economy and the other looking at the delays in implementation of the peace agreement, loss of democratic space, loss of revenue and how the disease has moved into people’s homes in ways that go beyond the immediate health concerns. Their conclusions paint a very gloomy picture such that the country would still be in dire straits even if the disease was brought under control. Generalised food insecurity and widespread political violence have all been exacerbated by the focus on fighting the pandemic. Above all, the delay of imports due to border restrictions, as South Sudan is a landlocked country with a nearly 100 per cent import economy, has impacted life in the country. This will lead to serious deficit in food commodities and extremely high prices, all for a country that has just experienced massive loss of revenue due to decline of global oil prices under the weight of the pandemic. South Sudan leadership would need to be extremely creative in its war against this disease if the country’s population has to be protected from all angles.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.